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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - BENGHAZI, Libya — Forces of Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar on Monday said they had taken control of the coastal city of Sirte from factions loyal to the Tripoli government.
Sirte, some 450 km (280 miles) east of the capital Tripoli, had been held by forces allied with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) since 2016.
But on Monday, a spokesman for the rival faction, Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), said the city had fallen to his fighters.
"Sirte has been totally liberated... from terrorist groups," Ahmad Al-Mesmari, spokesman for Haftar's forces, said on television following an operation that lasted just hours.
The oil-rich North African country has been plunged into chaos since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that killed longstanding dictator Muammar Gadhafi.
It is now divided between the GNA based in the capital Tripoli in the west and Haftar's forces which are based in the east and also control most of the country's south.
Haftar's LNA earlier Monday said on social media they were "steadily advancing toward the heart of Sirte" after seizing control of Ghardabiya airport on the city's outskirts.
The statement said the operation aimed to "purge Sirte of armed militias".
The airport, located in an air force base, fell into LNA hands after "forces tasked with protecting it surrendered completely with their equipment" to Haftar's army, the statement added.
"Clashes are underway" in the southern part of Sirte and in its coastal area, the statement said, adding that some enemy fighters had fled while others were captured by the advancing LNA forces.
Forces loyal to the Tripoli-based GNA confirmed they had come under attack in Sirte.
"We are dealing with Haftar's terrorist militias," they said in a statement on Facebook, adding that "mercenaries" from Chad were fighting alongside Haftar's forces.
The UN-recognized government has recently sought help from its ally Turkey.
Meanwhile, the European Union's top diplomat warned on Monday that more intense fighting could be about to break out around the Libyan capital Tripoli, calling for a political solution to the crisis.
"Recent developments in Libya indicate that an escalation of violence around Tripoli could be imminent," said the EU high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell.
The UN Security Council was to meet later Monday on the situation in Libya, where Turkish troops have begun deploying to protect the Tripoli-based government from Haftar forces.
On Saturday, an air strike hit a military school in the capital, leaving at least 30 people dead, according to the health ministry of the GNA.
Haftar's forces denied that they were behind the attack.
"We condemn attacks such as Saturday's strike against the military school, which only bring more violence and human suffering," Borrell said.
"Today it is more urgent than ever to work genuinely towards a political solution to the crisis in Libya," he said.
"The European Union calls on all sides to engage in a political process under the leadership of the United Nations. The European Union will continue to deploy all efforts towards finding a peaceful and political solution to this process."
In another significant development, Egypt announced on Monday that it will hold a meeting with four European Mediterranean countries about developments in neighboring Libya after Turkey began deploying troops in the war-torn North African nation.
The talks — to be held in Cairo on Wednesday — will bring together foreign ministers from France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, Egypt's foreign ministry said.
The ministers will tackle the "rapid developments" in Libya and "ways to push efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement" between rival administrations there, a statement said.
Last week the Turkish parliament passed a bill approving a military deployment to Libya to shore up the GNA.
On Sunday Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan said soldiers had begun deploying in Libya.
Tensions escalated in Libya when Haftar launched an operation in January 2019 to "purge" southern Libya "of terrorist groups and criminals" and seized several towns after security support from local tribes. — AFP
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